Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)

by Robert D. Lupton

Book reviewed by Alan Arnold

Scarce, indeed, are veteran church folk who are dispassionate about our ways of caring for the poor. Not THAT we care for the poor but HOW we do so. In his book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) (Harper One:New York, 2011), Robert D. Lupton gently criticizes charitable routines and urges a remodeling of the infrastructures of caring. Doing so (and without explicit intention), Lupton presents a treatment of the Missional Church conversation that is intriguing so many Christians today.

Lupton critiques the results of a “compassion boom” which issues in mega-dollars intended to relieve the effects of enduring poverty or random calamity. This bonanza of cash typically gives solace to benefactors but persistently fails to change conditions that make aid necessary. Underlying his account is this Missional question: “What is the reality God is inviting us to live into?”

The reality we are accustomed to gives us some comfort about giving alms (groceries, surplus clothing, etc.) to the poor, laying tile (badly) in a Cuban seminary, or re-building houses (at ten times the local cost) in a devastated Honduran neighborhood. But there is a different reality – one that moves caring ones from simply dispensing benefits to coming alongside the unfortunate and partnering with them as they regain stability, dignity, and integrity of person and purpose.

Lupton acknowledges the need for immediate aid in disaster situations. In fact, the ministry he founded in Atlanta (FCS – Focused Community Strategies) began as an aid dispensing agency. Like many involved in such labors, he gradually became discouraged at what he perceived as dependencies that were maintained by FCS’ efforts. Lupton now argues that food pantries and other aid-dispensing organizations unintentionally perpetuate chronic poverty issues. Giving such as this is one-way and makes objects of the poor, harming dignity, eroding work ethic, and encouraging dependency.

Bringing him to this recognition was the scant success of large governmental programs of the 1960s and ‘70s that endured for decades seeking to end poverty in the U.S. Those failures were repeated internationally. In her 2010 book, Dead Aid, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo chronicled the ineffectiveness of $1 trillion in benevolences sent to Africa over the past 50 years. Moyo and World Bank studies maintain that these monies produced no discernible difference in the quality of life of the vast majority of Africans.

Basing his thesis upon such failures, Lupton proposes a different model of aid – one that takes serious the causes of poverty and underachieving in both domestic and international quarters. He argues that domestic “hand-out” aid merely undermines confidence and fosters a “working the system” mentality that leads to an adversarial relationship. What is needed instead are trust and relationship.

FCS and Lupton therefore refocused and now seek to design development strategies for communities that strike at the sources of poverty. He calls this the “balanced portfolio” approach and cites the combined efforts of Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates as examples of wise giving via the William Gates Foundation. These three are willing to take risks but want a return on their investment. Their personal approach to responsible giving:

Research and development is vital.

Invest in success.

Focus on your passions.

Investigate the best practices of those in the field to determine what works.

Create a prototype to test new approaches.

Record the process.

Tweak the methods.

Replicate successes.

Lupton gives examples of effective applications of these principles that have resulted in food co-ops, community gardens, and redevelopment of housing that produce mixed-income and multi-cultural neighborhoods. He annotates relationships that take seriously the experiences and aspirations of people in need. Through mutual exchange and analytics by the community, the aid program can assist the district to take steps toward addressing the fundamental sources of hardship. These initial successes are followed by improvements in schools and commercial services as well as boosts in neighborhood pride. He calls this process a movement “from heart responses to mindful involvement with those in need.”

Lupton calls such projects “re-neighboring” and stresses the importance of developing the complex trust and commitments that neighbors share. To this end he offers an Oath for Compassionate Service to agencies seeking a new way. The goal of this way of thinking is to move from “betterment” (improving the existing conditions) to “development” (strengthening capacity in order to enable others to do for themselves). Part of development might include relocating one’s dwelling into the community of attention. Lupton in fact made this move with his family many years ago. In this he is an inspiration for the young corps of service-minded who are merging into society today and who want to make a difference. These on-the-ground visionaries are “re-neighboring” alongside residents who have endured years of neglect.

The development envisioned by this frame of mind is not merely economic and social but also spiritual. Hence, the link to the Missional Church conversation. At one point, Lupton quotes Matthew Fox’s Reinvention of Work: “There is only one work in the Cosmos. That one work is God’s work. Humans are invited to participate.” This is the mindset of those who strive to discover a ministry guided by the Spirit of God. Rather than asserting design and control of mission, such folk will seek to find where God is at work in their community and come alongside to assist the Divine plan to come into being. In other words, we can embrace the fact that God is already at work in our neighborhoods and find out what God is up to so we can get in on it.

Toxic Charity is unlikely to affect denominational approaches to mission but it might influence a congregation’s. One suspects that the aim of the book is to change the perspective of individuals so that a different attitude toward serving the poor is adopted. Christians are steadfast in believing that God is going ahead of the Church, transforming the world according to God’s plan. Even the most faithful are way behind in comprehending God’s design. Practicing some of Lupton’s methods may help all of us catch up a bit.

Alan Arnold, Pinnacle Associate

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